Before the 2007 season, there was a general agreement that the Orioles had found their closer. It was deemed in the spring of '06 that Chris Ray would be the replacement for the departed BJ Ryan. Ray rewarded the organization for its confidence with a nifty 2.73 ERA in 66 IP, converting 33 saves in 38 chances.
But while others were singing his praises, I was more than a little worried about Ray's future in the closer role. His peripheral numbers were simply not that good in 2006. He was an extreme fly-ball pitcher with a tendency to give up lots of walks. His strikeout rate was good, but not good enough to compensate for his deficiencies in other areas. But an unsustainable .197 BABIP muted the effects of the poor peripherals. Well, not totally. Ray did give up a whopping 10 HR on the season which caused some concern. But in the minds of many, results were results, and Ray was getting the needed results even with his propensity to give up the longball.
Ray did struggle early in the season in terms of his ERA, but by mid-May he had lowered his ERA to 3.44. That number was inflated by two appearances where he gave up a combined 7 runs. Indeed Ray was unscored upon in his other 16 appearances. More importantly, Ray was giving up fewer fly balls and had a sterling 18:2 K:BB ration through 18 1/3 IP.
But the next 18 1/3 innings were not nearly as kind. In his very next appearance Ray retired just one batter and his ERA rose by nearly a full point. In 19 appearances over that span, Ray compiled a 6.87 ERA, driven by a nasty 15:13 K:BB ratio.
However since that terrible stretch, Ray has made five appearances totaling five innings. In those five innings of work he hasn't surrendered a run, has struck out 10, and has walked just two (including no walks in four of his five appearances).
It's tough to know the reason for the up and down performances by Ray this year. Obviously the fluctuations in the walk rate has been the major change throughout the season. My eyes told me that Ray has been doing a better job attacking the strike zone in his past five games, so I decided to check the data.
In his first 18 games, Ray threw a stellar 66.1% of his 298 pitches for strikes. In the second portion of the season, that number dropped to 60.8% of 358 pitches (notice the need for 60 more pitches to complete the same number of innings). But in this third leg of the season the number has risen back to only 62.9% in 81 pitches. That's not bad at all, but it isn't as good as it was early in the season.
Maybe it's just the perils of small sample size. Ray could end the year with a sub-3 ERA or with one that climbs back over 5.00. But for now, it might be best to have a little patience with Ray's struggles because he is on the right track.